Sustainability’s posers and doers

Insights from the outdoor and action sports industries
Photo credit: Teva Todd (@teva.todd)
Sustainability. Where do I start? It's one of my favourite topics to write and ponder about simply because it means so many things and nothing at all at the same time. To me, it (still) is a mystery - a concept with myriad interpretations and implementations that also reflects our collective aspirations and, concurrently, our shared hypocrisies.

What does it mean for an industry to be sustainable? As outdoor and actionsports grapple with this question, we encounter the central paradox - no product exists without environmental impact. Patagonia's Gabe Davies told me once, "the most sustainable product is the one you've already got." This sentence stuck with me. It made me realize that sustainability remains an ever-moving target, more of a journey than a destination. For someone deeply entrenched in the actionsports and outdoor industry, it's fun to see how these industries that share the same kindred adventurous spirit stack up against each other.

For years, outdoor brands have been chasing this moving target rigorously, incorporating environmental stewardship into business models from supply chains to CSR initiatives. They recognize protecting natural playgrounds enables future profits. For brands likePatagonia it's both - value alignment and value creation.On the flip side, actionsports remain stuck chasing shadows. Other than (maybe) Outerknown (men's and women's apparel brand rooted in environmental sustainability), no other native brand has matched Patagonia's ambition. Period. I specifically say no brand, because Patagonia's roots live elsewhere.

"Sustainability remains an ever-moving target, more of a journey than a destination."

For years, actionsports have claimed Patagonia as theirs. The brand has been surfing's golden goose—the blueprint, providing an entire industry with a place to hide. As important and necessary as Patagonia is for the surf industry, it isn't a homegrown brand. This distinction matters because incorporating sustainability from inception is fundamentally different than adopting it later because of trends or opinions. For the surf industry in particular, Patagonia feels more like a convenient accessory - allowing the industry to borrow credibility amidst criticism, rather than driving material change.

What passes as "sustainable" remains initiatives slapped on to generate good PR, not a comprehensive commitment, and the industry at large continues its copycat cynicism. Co-opting the aesthetic of sustainability leadership without sacrifice is stagnation – and with ever-rising expectations, this status quo faces expiration, as more consumers and policymakers expose ethics as optics rather than action.

Something that might change this is new greenwashing laws coming out of Europe. As our collective definition of ethical business expands, the outdoor industry might just provide the solution for actionsports working to close what remains a substantial credibility gap rooted fundamentally in a commitment to purpose over profit.

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Photo credit: Laura Schaeffer